WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR (2021)

(Cinemas, VOD) WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR was often described as creepypasta during its film fest tour last year, which — fair, given that it’s about (mostly) teens performing ritualistic summoning acts based on internet content, and then recording themselves online to document the results of said acts — but I find it more to be a character drama lined with horror elements, as opposed to a modern technological horror tale.

(As usual, I’ll keep spoilers light, but if the above sounds appealing to you, perhaps just watch the film and read this after!)

To summarize: ‘Casey’ (an astounding debut from Anna Cobb) is a high-school teen who lacks a mother, hides in a bedroom attic from an asshole father whom is rarely home, and has no friends. She loves horror and darkness and is -extremely online-. She decides to take ‘The World’s Fair Challenge’, which consists of repeating ‘I want to go to The World’s Fair’ three times over — Bloody Mary/Candyman style — then pricking your thumb and bleeding onto a screen, and lastly, watching the ‘The World’s Fair Challenge’ video via said screen, all of which she records via her very underwatched online channel.

What happens next is questionable for all involved, but it always involves some sort of physical transformation. While this could be construed as a teen puberty allegory, it has more depth.

(It’s at this point that I should note that the director, Jane Schoenbrun, is trans, but hadn’t started transitioning when she started writing the script. I highly recommend reading her spoiler-free interview with IndieWire’s Jude Dry)

‘Casey’, based on her videos, hears from an older male-presenting person known solely as JLB (the memorable character actor Michael J Rogers), who constantly frets about her. Matters escalate, but in ways you wouldn’t suspect.

At the center of WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR is a meditation on finding one’s identity and transformation, not in thrills or scares. (Although it does have a few of those.) While some would write this off as a COVID-centric film — apart from a sole snippet in one scene, no two major players act alongside each other — it’s also about how people reach out through technology when there’s no other way. It’s a heartfelt, singular work, and I can’t wait to see more from Jane.

Lastly, I’ll note: this may seem antithetical for an -extraordinarily online- work, but try to make the effort to see it in the theater if possible. The use of negative space, of silence, of punctuational sound — especially rain — and most certainly of hard-cuts to loading animations is so goddamn effective when blown up and taken out of a smaller screen context. It becomes almost overwhelming and daunting in a way that one rarely thinks about, but one that is certainly intended.

“I swear, some day soon, I’m just going to disappear, and you won’t have any idea what happened to me.”

PROJECT A-KO (1986)

(Blu-Ray/Roku/tubi) As one might suspect, I was a gigantic nerd in my youth, enough of one that I was part of a group in high-school that would pool our lunch money to order LaserDiscs of late 80s anime and we’d then, err, find ways to ‘happen upon’ ways to duplicate copies for all involved. Let me tell you: bootlegging works were far more difficult, but far more enthralling, back then.

Apart from the soundtrack occasionally popping up in my playlists over the years, I’d mostly forgotten about PROJECT A-KO (despite still having a proper VHS copy of it)! At least, until this post popped up in my feeds.

The immediate flashback this post induced was: “oh, now that I think about it, this anime wasn’t just fan-service, it was super gay.” And, yup:

“The basic plot of PROJECT A-KO is: one dumbass lesbian fighting another dumbass lesbian to win the heart of the dumbest lesbian in the lands.”

I forgot how funny, how comic, PROJECT A-KO was, even though I know I didn’t get the bulk of the in-jokes and parodies and references back-in-the-day, and probably still don’t. However, it features a ton of hilariously universal kinetic physical comedic moments, while still often feeling grounded despite, you know, someone using numerous missiles as stepping stones during combat. Additionally, while the characters do a lot of punching, there’s not much in the way of punching down. Everyone here is flawed and messy and definitely either queer or over-protective found family, and you’re meant to identify with their flaws, rather than scorn them.

I rarely recommend any YouTube film-centric commentary video that runs for over an hour because I often don’t have the patience for watching them, but I highly recommend the one linked in the MeFi post above. I learned a lot, and it brought back a lot of memories.

Lastly, the OST is well-worth your time. Spaceship in the Dark is still a banger with all of its orchestral hits.

DESIRE AND HELL AT SUNSET MOTEL (1991)

(YouTube) I caught DESIRE AND HELL AT SUNSET MOTEL (1991) as part of a triple Sherilyn Fenn feature during the recent David Lynch complete retrospective. While it conflicted with the last Swanberg Secret Screening at the Davis, I couldn’t resist — there’s only one print, and no one apart from the organizer of this retrospective will probably care enough about the film to jump through the hoops to screen it again. There are plenty of LaserDisc and VHS copies available via eBay (and a copy on YouTube if you look for it) but, apart from the home market, it went mostly unseen, and will probably continue to do so.

That’s a goddamn shame, because this is a wildly fun bit of throwback color noir, perfectly framed with beautiful blues all around that makes it ideal for the big screen, and it makes the most of Sherilyn Fenn’s abilities.

To summarize: husband and ‘small toy seller’ Chester (Whip Hubley) travels out for a company conference to California with his wife Bridey (Sherilyn Fenn), and stay at the Sunset Motel, managed by a leering voyeur (the always delightful Paul Bartel). Chester suspects that Bridey is cheating on him, so he hires someone known as Deadpan (CUBE’s David Hewlett) to shadow her while there. Meanwhile, Bridey has finagled a dude she’s lead along known as Auggie (David Johansen/Buster Poindexter) to meet her there to kill Chester with his own gun. Matters escalate, then completely fragment as Bridey’s memory starts to falter.

The story barely holds together and the dialogue is overly colorful in a way that almost feels like a parody of hard-boiled patois, but despite all that, it is a thrilling ride that leans into its frenzied plotting. However, it mostly succeeds because Fenn was born for these sort of retro-noir films, exuding danger and seduction not just with her stark hair and beauty mark, but her demeanor and poise; Ava Gardner reborn.

THE LOST DAUGHTER (2021)

(Netflix) A haunting film — adapted by Maggie Gyllenhaal from the novel of the same name by Elena Ferrante — about what’s doing right for you, even if it’s wrong for everyone else, and living with the repercussions of your actions.

I am not the right person to write about this film that is fundamentally about the hurt of motherhood; mothers who don’t feel parental; of a personal reckoning. It features both Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley, it fucked me up and I loved it, and I am disappointed it wasn’t discussed more prior to the Oscars. Instead, I will link to others talking and writing more insightfully about the film than I could:

Linda Holmes & Neda Ulaby for the POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR podcast: https://www.npr.org/transcripts/1064901091 (Transcript, and I especially love Neda’s take on it as a horror film.)

Sheila O’Malley for RogerEbert.com: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-lost-daughter-movie-review-2021

Alissa Wilkinson for vox.com: https://www.vox.com/22869285/lost-daughter-netflix-review-explained

Esther Zuckerman questions Gyllenhaal about the film for thrillist.com and it is a supremely insightful and brilliant look at film and the process of completing THE LOST DAUGHTER: https://www.thrillist.com/entertainment/nation/netflix-the-lost-daughter-maggie-gyllenhaal-inspirations

“But just this idea that women do make work that’s different than men. And what’s that mean? And what does it look like?”

SCREAM (2022)

(VOD/Paramount+) The SCREAM franchise has always been culturally and technologically relevant so I can’t say I’m surprised that the fifth SCREAM film — which self-describes itself as a reinvention, despite slavishly adhering to the original’s trappings — was a financial success.

However, even if this is a franchise that is fundamentally about being paint-by-numbers, SCREAM (2022) rings a bit perfunctory at times. It certainly doesn’t feel as inventive as directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s previous very violent take on Agatha Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE: READY OR NOT. It replays the first SCREAM’s opening scene and mimics many of the initial film’s beats and the rules the franchise has previously underscored (as opposed to invented — it’s practically an adaptation of everything laid out in Carol J. Clover’s brilliant series of essays on slashers: MEN, WOMEN, AND CHAINSAWS), although that’s not quite a crime given the understood confines of the slasher genre.

I always felt the initial SCREAM film was far more interesting because it lead with Sidney Prescott already being traumatized by the rape and murder of her mother, as opposed to being some naive teen. She was a survivor from the very opening, living and coping with her trauma, which is surprisingly rare with initial slasher entries.

There’s a similar, but completely different weight hanging over SCREAM (2022) lead character Sam Carpenter (the versatile Melissa Barrera) that I won’t spoil, but it is an interesting — albeit far-fetched — character note.

Along with Melissa Barrera, it has a brilliant supporting cast: a goofy Jack Quaid (TRAGEDY GIRLS) as Sam’s boyfriend, Jenna Ortega (YOU and JANE THE VIRGIN) as Sam’s sister, Jasmin Savoy Brown (THE LEFTOVERS) as the queer film nerd, the ever-defiant Mikey Madison (BETTER THINGS), and the very game returning cast.

Is this as good as the first SCREAM? No, of course not, but that was something singular and I’m sure SCREAM (2022) lands differently for youths than it does for someone like me who was alive when it first hit screens. Is SCREAM (2022) a wild and unpredictable ride? Yes and no, respectively. Is it worth your time? Certainly, it’s very well-honed and executed, as colorful and full of camera motion and crane shots as the original, and a despite a bit of flab, mostly tightly plotted.

“How can fandom be toxic? It’s about love!”

EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (2022)

(Cinemas) I’ve gone on record as being both an easy laugher and an easy crier when it comes to film viewing, but it’s very rare that I do both at the same time. The Daniels’ (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheiner, who previously helmed the surprisingly affecting dick joke of a film SWISS ARMY MAN) EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE had my face wet and aglow more than a few times.

EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (henceforth referred to as EVERYTHING) is an absolutely outrageous film; it’s mind-bogglingly high-concept, often amusingly puerile, always inventive, but also remarkably emotionally grounded. If that sounds like your idea of a good time, read no further and just go see it, preferably on the largest screen possible. (Although, if you do read further, I promise no major spoilers.)

EVERYTHING is all about Evelyn (see what they did there?) played by a never-better Michelle Yeoh — and that’s saying something, as her career is vast and multi-faceted and brilliant — who helms a laundromat with her overly joyful husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan, who you may remember as INDIANA JONES’ Short Round) that is currently being audited by the IRS, specifically by Deirdre (Jaime Lee Curtis, clearly having the time of her life). Meanwhile, Evelyn is trying to mediate matters between taking care of her addled, elderly father (the illustrious James Hong), and her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) and her daughter’s girlfriend, Becky (Tallie Medel), all while personally bemoaning all of the options she could have pursued over her life, including singing and acting, instead of tending to a struggling laundromat where her husband keeps slapping googly eyes on everything.

When heading up in an elevator in a non-descript IRS building to meet Deidre and iron their financial matters out, Waymond’s disposition completely shifts; he pops an umbrella to obscure a security camera, and then gives her the barest of instructions and information, which ultimately results in: right now, I’m not your husband; I’m the same person, but from a different, splintered universe, and I need your help. Evelyn’s then walked through the process of accessing her multiverse personas, explicitly through silly, surreal actions.

Matters escalate and what ultimately follows is a very heady trip through not only a mid-life crisis, but a personal reckoning with family. And hot dog hands, which happen to exist in a universe in which people play pianos with their toes. (I can’t help but think that’s a bit of a Tarantino riff. Notably, Uma Thurman is thanked in the credits.)

While EVERYTHING feels a tad too long at almost two-and-a-half-hours, none of that running time is wasted. It is jam-packed, almost overstuffed, with so many ideas, so many effusive, brilliant visual gags, so much hurt between Evelyn and Joy, so much enthusiasm from Way, so many brilliantly choreographed and executed fight sequences, it’s hard to say what they could have cut. The film is an embarrassment of riches, a treasure-trove of cinematic appreciation, but also a surprisingly thoughtful take on hope and love and humanity and of aging and of missed opportunities. While I’m prone to crying and laughing too much at a film, it is an astonishing achievement, and one worth being exuberant about.

Lastly, buy an everything bagel before diving in, and save it for after. You’ll thank me later.

YOU WON’T BE ALONE (2022)

If forced to describe YOU WON’T BE ALONE, the first film from Goran Stolevski, in a simple log line, I’d say: it’s equal parts Truffaut’s THE WILD CHILD, Virginia Woolf’s novel ORLANDO and Sally Potter’s film adaptation, and Angela Carter’s THE BLOODY CHAMBER and Neil Jordan’s adaptation, THE COMPANY OF WOLVES. (Then again, every single one of those works were very formative for me, so I’m perhaps not the most reliable narrator for this write-up.)

While that may sound very specific, it doesn’t quite do YOU WON’T BE ALONE justice. Set in 19th century Macedenoia, it’s about a young girl promised to a wolf-eateress named Maria (a ruthlessly great Anamaria Marinca) — for all intents and purposes, a witch — by her mother to account for being set fire to at the hands of their community. Her mother then forces her daughter into an enclosed cave for the rest of her youth, in an attempt to prevent the witch from absconding with her and turning her into a wolf-eateress/witch.

Once the feral girl is grown, Maria kills the mother, takes on her disguise, and abducts Biliana (Alice Englert, who also appeared in THE POWER OF THE DOG), predictably changing her into a witch with the hopes that she’d be the daughter she never had.

What follows are a number of physical transformations, of Biliana exploring her humanity but in a rather flailing way, and often being disappointed by the results, all portrayed by depictions of fundamental elementals; hair, water, fire, earth, blood and skin.

It’s a bewildering work, one far more sensitive than I thought it’d be, with a wildly roaming camera that knows how to sit still when necessary. It’s visually astounding while also being quietly desperate; a stunningly heartfelt first film.

HATCHING (2022)

One of my favorite activities to attend when the world first re-opened in the summer of 2021 was Joe Swanberg’s Secret Screenings at Chicago’s Davis Theater. If you aren’t familiar with Swanberg, he’s perhaps best known for being a mumblecore pioneer — the low-rent indie film genre that emphasized language and small-scale human drama — but he’s also a prolific actor and producer and he loves Chicago, specifically his neighborhood of Lincoln Square, where the Davis is housed.

His secret screenings are exactly what they sound like: you buy a ticket solely knowing you’ll get to watch a film wouldn’t be possible to see otherwise. (I’ve previously written about a few of his prior screenings, including DETENTION). If you can attend, he has one more secret screening at the Davis on April 9th, and the writer/director will be present for a post-film Q&A. (Swanberg knows how to moderate these things, so it’ll be a quality Q&A!)

His first secret screening of 2022 was of Sundance darling HATCHING, a Finnish coming-of-age horror film from director Hanna Bergholm and writer Ilja Rautsi about Tinja (Siiri Solalinna), a gymnast teen with a monstrous social media-obsessed mother (a wicked Sophia Heikkilä), one who would rather break the neck of a raven that literally shatters the trappings of the family home as opposed to letting it free. Tinja later finds the crippled creature, puts it out of its misery, then sees a sole egg from the raven’s nest and decides to tend to it. Matters escalate in a brilliant way that explores puberty and terrible mothers.

Trust me, the less you know about the rest is best, but it’s a thrilling, wild, disgusting, intense ride. It’s a film that would make a great late-night double-feature with GINGER SNAPS.

I’d like to digress a bit from the film though, solely to discuss horror and bodies, as HATCHING — more than any other film I’ve seen in some time — scrutinizes physicality. Horror, perhaps more than any other genre than action, relies on people’s bodies being thrown around, either self-imposed or done by others. As someone who was infatuated with tumbling, bar work, and gymnastics in general as a youth, you’re repeatedly told to trust yourself, to get over your fears, to think of your appendages as tools; you specifically toss yourself around like an object for the amusement — or bemusement — of others. I look back and am shocked at the acts I put my body through, for no goddamn good reason apart from the fact that it felt good and it was expected.

I was not a gifted gymnast and, similarly, HATCHING’s Tinja is not a gifted gymnast, but unlike her, I was never pressured by a desperate mother to pursue it. It was just an extracurricular I latched onto.

I can’t imagine putting myself through those routines now as I’m too old and creaky, but I do miss it. That feeling is much what horror films capture and encapsulate: the thrill of youthfully putting yourself in perilous situations, of exploiting the belief of immortality of the young which is, at least in most horror films, often then cut short; victims of hubris, of launching themselves too high towards the sky and failing to stick the landing.

(As usual, including a trailer, but probably best to stay away if you have any interest in the film.)

X (2022)

On paper, X (2022) sounds like sexploitation by way of the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: it’s 1979 and a group of Houston-based porn filmmakers head out to the boonies to shoot what they think will be -the- artistic home-video porno breakthrough, only for it to become their ultimate nightmare.

However, writer/director Ti West has always been supremely measured and thoughtful when it comes to his take on horror. The standout scene in his breakthrough film THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL consists of two minutes of protagonist Samantha (an ebullient Jocelin Donahue) dancing to THE FIXX’s ‘One Thing Leads to Another’ as it plays on her WalkMan, as opposed to the spectacularly nightmarish set-pieces that close the movie. West knows how to imbue emotion and heartfelt sincerity into his films in ways that few genre filmmakers do, and X is a clear case of this, even down to a similarly adorable music break.

Without spoiling anything, yes, X is lurid, is sensationalist, and definitely luxuriates in the sort of capitalist free love that existed at that time (at least, on film) but the soul of the film is about desire, to want and be wanted and feel hands on you; of coupling reciprocity. West is making the slasher subtext of physical, usually knife-centric, intimacy into text.

It also helps that West is ruminating in all of his cinematic influences: from John Ford to Jean-Luc Godard to Hitchcock, every scene — practically every shot — takes an established, recognizable visual motif and then skews — or skewers — it.

X is a wild but surprisingly sentimental ride, one that could revel in nastiness but opts instead to be an array of character pieces that also happens to be a rather thrilling, blood-soaked 90 minutes.

Lastly, I’d like to note: one facet of X’s production studio A24 that I love is that they encourage their auteurs to send out a newsletter reflecting on their film, and West’s one regarding X is worth a read.

CHICAGO – ‘Cell Block Tango’ (2002)

Every six months or so I become absolutely infatuated with a filmed musical number and will endlessly play it on repeat for days. Prior offenders include: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR’s ’Superstar’, CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND’s ‘You Stupid Bitch’, just about any song from JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS, LIZZIE’s ‘House of Borden’, SWEET CHARITY’s ‘The Aloof/The Heavyweight/The Big Finish’, and even The View’s performance of the Broadway adaptation of FROZEN’s ‘Let It Go’.

Right now, it’s CHICAGO’s ‘Cell Block Tango’, a number from a film that I saw when it first ran in theaters, groused about how it swept the Oscars that year, and now I won’t shut up about.

To be fair, I watched it before I really started to understand musicals and accept them for what they are, instead of finding them to be overly dramatic venues for big showtunes and elaborate dance scenes.

Please understand that I’m (mostly) only discussing the ‘Cell Block Tango’ here, not the film at large because, otherwise, this piece would run at least four thousand words. (Trust me, I’ll spill the rest of those words some day, especially concerning the backstory of the play!)

One last matter worth noting: I moved to Chicago — the city, not the musical — right around the time of the theatrical revival, several years before the release of the film adaptation. So, well beforehand, I had already soaked in the look and feel of the revival’s fishnet-adorned El stop ads and billboards.

And with that, I’ll say that, twenty years later, this piece is better than ever. I was deadly wrong about dismissing it.

Taken out of context, it plays like a fever dream, a blurring of fact-and-fiction, of glamor fantasy and hardened reality, and I love it.

Women scorned, unafraid to exact vengeance. Legs as shotguns; wrists as daggers.

The secret weapon here is Catherine Zeta-Jones, who most folks at the time wrote off as a pair of versatile hips for Sean Connery, but reveals herself as one hell of a torch singer, while also throwing herself at you with a fire in her eyes.

This is a musical adaptation that a lot of folks complain about because it breaks the mould of film musicals; it relies on a lot of rapid shots and whiplash choreography, but that’s a good thing! CHICAGO (2002) is all about punc-u-a-tion and what better way to emphasize that than scissor legs and quick cuts? It’s all about the kinetic movement, even utilizing some frame-skipping to give it extra POP, and it turns CHICAGO from a leering stage production into immensely compelling cinema.

This is seven minutes of tales of abuse, anger, and unrepentant payback, tales told from a century ago via the original author Maurine Dallas Watkins, but are also a tale as old as time.

“Then he ran into my knife. He ran into my knife TEN TIMES.”

I could go on about the work’s fidelity to Fosse and his faceless, mute men, fetish wear and so on, but really, the piece speaks for itself. Go ahead, listen, and watch, and don’t disregard it like I did before:

Lastly, the entire history of this film’s production is astounding, and it’s all detailed here. Trust me, read it — you will not be disappointed.